With tourism to Israel breaking all records, the largest group of tourists to visit the country this year came on a trip organized by the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), Chabad’s adult educational arm. They visited the width and breadth of the country, engaged in in-depth study and daily reflection sessions, met with locals and soldiers, studied about their religious connection to the land and heard from leading politicians and personalities including; Yom Kippur War Hero Avigdor Kahalani, Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover, and US Ambassador David Friedman.
Registration for the trip had to be closed six months ago with over 300 people on the waiting list. One of the reasons for the uptick was a six-session course created by JLI last May entitled Survival of a Nation: Exploring Israel Through the Lens of the Six-Day War. Tens of thousands of JLI students took the course at 400 locations across the globe, inspiring a desire among many to witness and experience the places they had studied about.
Mike Abel, an investor from South Lake Tahoe who has visited Israel with his wife Helen "half a dozen" times before said this trip was different than the others. "Meeting with real Israelis and seeing firsthand the dedication and innovation of the people has been very special. Traveling to Israel with our rabbi also brought a spiritual depth to the trip that we experienced in the past.”
Rabbi Yankie Denburg, a Chabad Rabbi in Coral Springs, Florida, joined the trip with his wife Chana and eighteen people from his community. He described the trip as “transformative” for his group: “Experiencing the Holy Land brings home everything we’ve been studying and praying about,” said Denburg. “Everyone's been deeply moved in their own way. One of the women in our group, Debbie Flaherty, was inspired to take the Jewish name Bracha which we did during the Torah reading on Shabbat in Jerusalem.”
For the Diaspora Jews, the trip was also an opportunity to show appreciation to the brave defenders of the Jewish homeland. On Wednesday, at Yad La-Shiryon memorial in Latrun the group paid tribute to IDF heroes. Awards were given to two wounded veterans; Dr. Asael Lubotzky, who despite being permanently disabled by wounds he suffered in the second Lebanon War, went on to become a practicing physician, and Yarin Ashkenazi, who was wounded 4 times during his military service and fought each time to return to his unit.
On Monday, the final day of the trip, a Torah saved by a 14-year-old boy on Kristallnacht from a burning Synagogue in Hamburg was paraded in Hevron to the Cave of the Patriarchs. The Torah was recently donated to the JLI, which restored it and loans it to communities around the world.
JLI Founding Director Rabbi Efraim Mintz said: “This trip is not just a tour, it’s an immersive learning experience to explore the soul of the country and to try to understand the deep connection we all have with the Holy Land. Our goal is to get to know the country but also the people who live here and the brave young people who protect our cherished homeland.”